If you need a pick-me-up or reminder of why you do what you do, give Gena Perry a call. She’ll be able to shed a light on agriculture’s big picture by providing perspective on a local and global scale infused with positive energy and boots-on-the ground experience to back up her intellect.
Gena Perry grew up in a small urban area in Georgia and had no connection to production agriculture. Her mom’s parents had some beef cattle and a small garden; however, her mom was the assistant principal at a more rural country high school, which had an active 4-H and FFA. In seventh grade, Perry transferred to that school where she wanted to get involved in an extracurricular activity. She tried out for the basketball team, and said, “If I don’t make the basketball team, I’ll show a dairy heifer.”
Luckily for agriculture, Perry didn’t make the basketball team, and joining 4-H was her introduction to an industry that she has dedicated herself to learning about, being involved in and promoting. “If it wasn’t for 4-H, FFA and ag education, who knows what I would be doing,” Perry said. “I love being a non-traditional ag-vocate. I understand it from both sides, but I know what’s it’s like to be on the outside.”
Even though she had no idea what it meant to “show” a cow, this would not be the only time Perry would find herself thrown into an opportunity she would go on to not only figure out, but excel at. Showing that heifer was the first time Perry was around animals that weren’t dogs. She may have gotten knocked down while halter breaking the animal, but she got back up again to take on the challenge of learning new things, being outside and being with the animals.
The high school continued to be a source of inspiration for learning more about agriculture. When she was a freshman, she took ag mechanics. She had no idea what the class was, but it sounded interesting. It was in that class that her teacher took out a box of cereal and asked what jobs went into getting a box of cereal into the kitchen. It was on that day, Perry realized “just how cool agriculture is,” from the input supplier to the farmer to the machinery supplier to the truck driver, and so much more. “I didn’t know anything about the value chain,” Perry said. “Agriculture touches so much of our lives.”
Education continued to play a key role in bringing additional opportunities to learn about agriculture to Perry. “I was born and raised as a Georgia Bulldog fan, so I knew I would go there,” Perry said emphatically. “And, I always loved to travel, so I wanted to do something international.” Perry found the furthest place she could find to study agriculture when she studied abroad in Tanzania, an East African country.
During her time in Tanzania, she was so intrigued at how similar , yet how different, some technologies and methodologies were between her native home and her place of study. “The main thing we all have in common [around the world] is that we all have to eat; we all have to wear clothes,” Perry said. “There are changes, advances, modifications made in the way we do things, but that common connection is always going to be there. It’s what’s kept me in agriculture.”
As one of her first jobs out of college, she worked as an ag-vocate for a Monsanto mobile unit that traveled around state and national fairs to give tours to the general public. In this role, she learned how to do a better job of communicating with non-agricultural people and making connections they understood. When asking a tour group to name types of corn, a common response would be “canned corn and corn on the cob.”
For anyone in agriculture, this is a ridiculous answer and one that makes no sense. For anyone not in agriculture, there is a good chance they don’t have any idea what other options would be available. Perry was able to connect with the tour groups because she knew firsthand what it felt like to not know the lingo or technology. “I learned what a grain elevator was when I was a sophomore in college,” Perry said. She is thankful that along the way, as she has continued to learn and grow in her knowledge of agriculture; she’s had people “gently correcting” her and many who have been willing to answer any (and all) of her questions to help her understand.
Working on the Monsanto mobile unit was an important character-building experience and reinforced Perry’s desire to advocate for production agriculture. During one of her tours for the mobile unit, there was a retired agronomy professor who helped give context and scientific information to an urban mom. Perry could see how the professor was able to connect with the mom due to his depth of knowledge, and it was at that point she realized she needed to go to graduate school to increase her ability to advocate in the future.
In graduate school, Perry worked with dairy farmers in Georgia and Florida to help them determine their business models and decisions based on conventional, grazing and hybrid approaches, and she was recruited for the second cohort of AgriCorps Fellows to serve in Ghana, a country in the subregion of West Africa. AgriCorps is a non-profit focused on agriculture education in developing countries, and after graduate school, Perry served as an AgriCoprs Fellow. In her role, she served as a liaison between AgriCrops Ghana and 4-H Ghana and coordinated training activities between AgriCorps, 4-H Ghana and local 4-H clubs to achieve greater program efficacy.
“Most of [AgriCorps] Fellows taught in middle and high schools,” Perry said, “but training and capacity building was more suited to my strengths.” Perry believed so deeply in the mission that she decided to work on staff at AgriCorps for two and a half years after her service as a fellow. Unfortunately, there are no AgriCorps fellowship programs right now, but the Borlaug Institute is implementing the International Ag Ed Fellowship Program in Ghana and AgriCorps has worked closely with them, and many of those previously interested in AgriCorps are applying for that fellowship program.
As Perry transitioned from her agvocacy and development work with AgriCorps in Ghana, she found herself in, yet again, another role where she would be thrown into the deep end and have the opportunity to learn about another segment of the agricultural sector. Perry is currently the project director of global strategy for the American Soybean Association's World Initiative for Soy in Human Health (WISHH). “WISHH connects trade and development across global market systems, improving food security and creating long-term trade partners for U.S. soy,” Perry said. “When you develop a market, income will increase, economic development will increase, and that is really exciting.”
“Agriculture is so global, and it is so cool because it evolves so quickly and also at different rates. Some practices might be further behind, while some are miles ahead, but there’s always something new to learn,” Perry said.